Just beyond the opaque glass wall facing the elevator on the sixth floor runs a sliver of a retail space, used for Factory Days (when visitors can taste various products, ask questions, and watch production) and tasting events. Another glass wall separates the area from the pristine, almost antiseptic, factory, allowing visitors to peer into the activity just beyond. Whites and grays dominate the space, punctuated by a grassy green that seems to splash the entire room with a sense of good cheer. The overall impression is one of energy, conviction, and peace. It’s a great space, and, coming in from the winter weather and dinginess of West 27th Street in New York City, it feels like you’ve just entered an oasis of spring.
It’s almost 5:00 p.m. and another Factory Day is coming to a close. The plates, neatly lined up atop a long table, are down to one or two samples each. The options prove inviting: mint and cacao nib brownies, pink peppercorn wafers, coconut/lime and spiced almond caramels, and chocolate crispie rice clusters to name a few. The textures and flavors create an exciting and interesting interplay to the rich, intense bite of the smooth chocolate they grace. Just one taste and you can tell this company is doing things a little differently.
Chocolatier Erika Erskine, to put it in Kathy Moskal‘s (pictured on right) own words, “knows how to blend flavors that can stand up to our strong chocolate without competing with or overpowering it. And they remain subtle without losing their value.” And that is saying a lot. Subtlety is an art in and of itself, but in the realm of competing with heady chocolate, it stands out as sheer brilliance. The ability to balance and contrast flavors and textures while keeping something unified to the point where the whole becomes more than its parts takes more than a keen understanding of food. Moskal speaks very highly of her chocolatier, and this regard is mutual. Erskine feels it was nothing short of destiny that brought them together. It just may be a match made in business heaven. In describing her process of coming up with new flavors, Erskine gives away the easy collaboration that appears to be a strong part of this team’s relationship. Take for instance the raspberry/lemon chocolate bar they added to their line of flavored organic chocolate bars. Wrapped alternately in earthy and juicy fruit-colored paper, Moskal wanted a flavor that could come with a pink wrapper to complement the existing browns, oranges, greens, and yellow. She tossed the challenge to Erskine, who thought of a particular raspberry/lemon combination she had liked in a dessert from when she worked in the pastry kitchen at Eleven Madison Park. The flavor combination transferred well. Both flavors pop and balance each other against their chocolate backdrop and the packaging brilliantly fits the profile.
The world of specialty chocolates is fast growing, even in the freeze of a slowing economy. Susan Fussell of the National Confectioners Association notes that the premium chocolate category has grown by 30 percent over the past two years and is expected to grow by about 20 percent in 2009. It’s a good time to be in the chocolate business. But Moskal long ago proved her smarts, taking women’s hosiery from boring to bright with her line of designer stockings. Hue, in the ’80s, elevated tights, nylons, and socks to something of interest. Moskal brings this same talent of finding a niche and creating something practical, intelligent, and delectable to the production of chocolate. Selling her company in ’92, Moskal’s interest in business was again piqued when a friend, severely ill with diabetes, mentioned that she was looking for good chocolate she could eat. The key was finding something worthy of her friend’s gourmet palate. It had to be delicious. Moskal began by reading a lot.
And she hired a company to help her play around with ingredients, trying different chocolates and most importantly low-glycemic but natural sweeteners. (The resulting products are very clean and very low in sugar—only her organic line uses cane sugar—and good for the body and the taste buds.) But this was only the beginning. From there she became interested in the cacao beans. She wanted something flavorful but also one that could be procured by ethically and socially responsible means. Her bean of choice was the Arriba bean, a well-balanced bean from Ecuador with floral and fruity notes. “Here was a veritable pharmacy with an excellent delivery system. It was flavorful, and I knew I wanted to accentuate the health benefits and veer away from adding a lot of sweetener and vanilla to cover up the pureness.” Working with three industry veterans in Ecuador looking to set up their own factory, the Verē bean-to-bar business was born, following the belief that you “don’t have to sacrifice quality for ethics, or flavor for health.” And Moskal wanted a chocolatier who shared her beliefs.
“A chef adds salt as seasoning, sugar should be treated the same way in the pastry kitchen: It’s an enhancer not a mask,” she says. And you can taste it in the chocolates and caramels that bear the companies name. These are no over sweetened indulgence. Erskine, who garnered both a degree from New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Le Cordon Bleu in London, was looking for the freedom to create new flavors with her dessert making and wanted to be involved in a product she believed in. She was equally committed to the idea that dessert could be a guilt-free treat. She confesses to eating a little chocolate every day. “I love that I can bring my love of food and nutrition together to create something that is beautiful, elegant, and healthful.” And that is not all.
Except for their certified organic bars, all other products are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. This certification requires that the chocolate has been produced following strict guidelines that ensure protection of the environment, wildlife, workers, and local communities (all things very important to Moskal and her way of doing business). All the couverture the company uses to make its products as well as its organic chocolate bars are made at the factory in Ecuador. The chocolate is shipped to the New York factory where the remaining products are completed.
Moskal has created a thoughtful business and strives to have a positive impact on the environment, the growers, the workers—and the consumer—through her products. With about 20 employees in Ecuador and five in Manhattan, it’s a small operation, but one with the transformative powers to change not only how you think about chocolate, but how you think it should taste. Pure. Smart. Delicious—we think they got it right.
12 West 27th Street, 6th fl.
New York, NY 10001